A third-grade student in Somerset County recently decided to celebrate her ninth birthday by collecting donations for a local food bank, and wound up with quite a haul.

Corinne Henry, of Branchburg, was able to donate 380 pounds of food, diapers and other necessary items to the Food Bank Network of Somerset County, according to her mother, Lindsay Henry.

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“During this difficult time, for us, it’s heartwarming and it’s encouraging to know that our young folks are aware — that young folks like themselves and their families, are food insecure,” Food Bank Network of Somerset County Executive Director Marie Scannell said.

The network distributes supplies through food pantries in Somerville, Bound Brook and North Plainfield and a new warehouse in Bridgewater.

Other young people also have taken up the idea of collecting food in lieu of presents for a birthday, confirmation or bar mitzvah, according to Scannell and other food bank staff.

In Corinne’s case, she had seen her mother’s tearful reaction to a story shared by Kim Guadagno, the former lieutenant governor who is CEO of Fulfill, the food bank that serves Monmouth and Ocean counties.

As first reported by Patch in February, a third grade student in Monmouth County had begun crying during a remote school session back in December, over being hungry with no available home food supply as her family had been struggling during the pandemic.

Lindsay Henry said when her daughter had asked about her emotional response, she felt it was a moment to tell her what she actually had been reading, rather than wave it off.

“It was just great to see her have that level of empathy, and to understand that this is the world that we live in, but that we’re not helpless — there are things that we can do,” Henry said.

She said as Corinne considered ways to help, the family opted to add a food donation request instead of presents during a drive-up Saturday celebration outside the family’s home.

The following Monday, the whole family packed up two cars and drove the donations over to Bridgewater, where the newly nine-year-old was a bit stunned to see the weigh-in of the items collected.

Food Bank Network of Somerset County girl birthday donation
A new warehouse in Bridgewater for the Food Bank Network of Somerset County (courtesy Food Bank Network of Somerset County via Facebook)

Guadagno later spoke about the case and the overall issue of roughly 400,000 children statewide who are considered food insecure, during an interview on CNN.

A report by the Community FoodBank of New Jersey released in September had estimated that hunger would spike more here than in neighboring states as the pandemic wore on, with the rate of food insecurity among residents rising by more than 80% in certain counties.

Henry also said what struck her while reading about the third grader struggling with hunger while remote is the challenges of connecting students with the school breakfast and lunch program while classes remain out of school buildings amid COVID-19.

In North Jersey, the United Way of Passaic County has developed a program with the Paterson school district, which has remained fully remote since March 2020, for a home delivery service to provide students and their families with seven days' worth of meals.

As of December, the Food Bank of South Jersey was serving about 45% more people than usual, with 40% of those people new to the system of receiving food, according to Food Bank of South Jersey president and CEO Fred Wasiak.

"If everyone got healthy today and there was no more COVID, it's going to take another 12 to 18 months for us to get back to even, or better than, the new normal," Wasiak previously said to New Jersey 101.5.

The issue of being food insecure is one that families grapple with year-round, not just when school is in session, which has prompted the state Department of Agriculture to already seek meal sponsors for this coming summer.

Corinne’s birthday haul is an example that help is coming from some of the youngest Garden State residents aware of the struggles that people are facing.

“This group of young people has been eager to help their neighbors,” Scannell said.

With previous reporting by Dino Flammia, Patrick Lavery and Jen Ursillo

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